About . . . . Classes . . . . Books . . . . Vita . . . . Blog. . . . Podcast

by Peter Moskos

December 24, 2009

It's not new, but is it fair?

I wasn't even going to link to this story because I don't want to repeat myself more than necessary.

Here's the point: black New Yorkers are seven times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. For a moment, let's put aside the actually story (not that we should). For the sake of debate, let's accept the seven times figure (as we should). Let's also accept that whites smoke just as much weed as blacks (that's also true). Let's ignore that fact (not that we should) that these arrests happen even though personal marijuana possession in New York State is decriminalized. And let's also not concern ourselves with the cost of $53 million to $88 million annually for these arrests. Let's not worry that these arrests may play an important part in a general "broken windows" approach to crime prevention. And finally, let's assume that everybody arrested is guilty as charged.

Here's my question: Does it matter that blacks are seven times more likely than whites to get caught for this drug crime? Perhaps not. I mean, all you have to do to not be arrested in not commit a crime, right?

Is simple guilt all that is needed to give moral justification to our criminal justice system? Remember, this seven-times discrepancy is not due to the facts that blacks are more likely to commit this drug crime. We're just talking about the odds of getting caught.

I mean, what if cops only gave traffic tickets to women. Women who speed and run red lights. But what if basically men were given a pass when it comes to traffic violations. Does it matter? Would this be fair? Perhaps.... since all the tickets were given to guilty women. But for traffic enforcement to be fair, shouldn't men get tickets, too?

At some level, I think the very notion of justice--at least justice with any moral legitimacy--depends on the idea that everybody has an equal (or at least somewhat equal) chance of getting caught.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Over the course of my life, I have had perhaps a couple of dozen seriously unpleasant encounters with strangers on the street or on public transport. Everything along the spectrum from being mugged to "what are you looking at" (in a menacing tone, accompanied by menacing gestures). I haven't counted to see what proportion exactly is African American people. But I would estimate it is about 7:1 African American versus other races.

Maybe my own experiences are not representative, but if they are, I think they can fully explain possession charge disparity. If you are out on the street or on the LIRR or on CENTRO menacing people, then you are likelier to end up being searched and having your contraband found by the constable.

Don't get me wrong. I think there are better ways to get menacing people off the streets than the criminalization of mj. Using mj possession as a proxy for determining which people are running around scaring people on the streets leads to too many situations where: (i) a person who is not being a nuisance is locked up; and (ii) people who really are nuisances continue to operate with impunity.

That said, the 7:1 ratio makes perfect sense to me even without an explanation based on racism in law enforcement. The white liberal in me would love to say that it is white people who chase me down the street or threaten to eff me up on the bus, but it is almost always black people. Not always, but almost always.

Meh said...

Wow didn't expect that from the above poster. I find myself agreeing with him though. In my experience as a cop, whites tend to be much more lowkey about MJ usage. They smoke it at home or at least try to be discreet about it. Blacks, especially young males, do things like drive down the street squealing tires and thumping bass while smoking mj. I've had groups of blacks walk by me on the street while smoking weed.

Also, I've noticed that a large number of street dealers also keep a stash of mj on them. Since blacks are arrested more often for street dealing, the mj charge is probably added as well.

PCM said...

Interesting comment indeed. Unpolitically correct reality rears its ugly head once again.

Though it might explain the overall arrest ratio, but that's another matter, I don't think that explains the 7:1 ratio for marijuana arrests (which I didn't mention only counts those who were arrested with no other charge).

I agree with much of what is said above, but let's not deny that race alone is a large factor in drug enforcement. And not because of racist cops. It's the nature of crime and America that makes the war on drugs racist.

To see whites that could be arrested, look at Door Room Dealers. Whites just aren't the focus of law enforcement. Because these white kids are college students. Because their parents have clout. They just don't risk getting arrested.

Or to make it personal, when I was in high school I was stopped while driving and the officer found a marijuana pipe in the back seat. She could have locked all of us up. But we were all white and the officer berated my friends by saying they could screw up their own lives, but, "this kid [meaning me] has a future in front of him!"

I suppose she was right. But these are the privileges of race and class in this country.

The biggest reason that most blacks are frisked in NYC has nothing to do with crime they did or didn't commit, it has to do with crime that happens where they live. They live in higher crime neighborhoods.

I understand that police can and should be in higher crime neighborhoods more, but that presence means that non-criminals in these neighborhoods are at greater risk of being victimized by criminals and hassled by the police. Is that inevitable? Perhaps. Is it OK? Also perhaps. I always liked to point out to drug dealers that it was my job to harass to criminals. But I think the 7:1 ratio in this case goes beyond that.

When I ask my students, and I always do, how many of them have been frisked, here's what I get.

Masters students: 10%
Undergrads: 60%
Community college students: 100%

Among my students, pretty much all of the black and hispanic New York City men have been frisked. All of them! And these are the college students! Such is reality here in the big city. And life in state where simple possession of marijuana in New York State is not even--at least in theory--an arrestable offense.

Marc said...

My best educated guesses as to why the disparity exists in no particular order:

-Black people (or more correctly, lower income, of which african americans make up a disproportionately large percentage) sell and buy drugs differently than white people. Open air markets and street purchaces make it much easier to get caught. Most people I know from college and home (middle class white people) who smoke buy weed from friends or aquaintences behind closed doors.

-Racial profiling. No one can say for certain how big a roll it plays, but it does exist to some degree.

-People in general don't know their rights. A buddy of mine just yesterday got stopped LEAVING the subway in New York City for a random bag search and was told (lied to) by police he could not refuse to be searched when he said "i do not consent to being searched, am i free to go?". If he wasn't on his way to an important business presentation, he would have asserted his rights further, but instead he just relented and the cops shuffled through his bag, of course, fucking up his presentation documents.

He's not a smoker, but if he had weed on him, he probably could have continued to refuse and walked away after some intimidation tactics from the officer proved fruitless. How many people know enough to assert their rights, especially lower income, less educated segments of society in which blacks are disproportionately represented?

-Quality of representation. Obviously, if you have more resouces to fight a charge, you don't go to jail nearly as often.

Marc said...

Figured I'd comment on the first poster.

I'm in philly and work EMS in a particularly unpleasant, mainly black area. I'd say i've had more unpleasant encounters with blacks than whites, but certainly nothing approaching 7:1 and probably nothing even approaching statistical significance given the demographics of the city and the area I work in. Times i felt legitimately threatened, switched on and one furtive movement from hurting someone have been about 50/50. These incidents are somewhat rare as I don't come off as particularly victimizable. Times when the actor was visibly intoxicated (alcohol or otherwise) during the unpleasant encounter, the actor was more frequently white. Times when the unpleasant encounter has occurred while i'm in uniform, the actor was more frequently white (and when i'm in uniform, the neighborhood is predominantly black). I've lived in a predominantly hispanic/asian neighborhood for a year and a half and have had no unpleasant encounters with people of either ethnicity.

I'm not sure if anything meaningful can be drawn from my personal experiances, but i certainly don't buy that race has anything to do with a predisposition towards confrontation or menacing strangers.

Yael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adrian said...

How I see it:

blacks live in urban ghettos in disproportionate numbers compared to whites. Blacks sells in open air drug markets in disproportionate numbers compared to whites. Open air drug markets are responsible for a lot of violence, and the gang life that often accompanies them is also responsible for a lot of violence. So cops, who are assigned areas based on violence rather than drug use, are disproportionately spending their time around open air drug markets and gang areas, where there are many more blacks than whites. So blacks get stopped more than whites, and blacks get arrested for UPM (I'm in NY State) more than whites.

When I'm looking up someone's criminal history and I see a lot of UPM arrests, I assume that the person is out on the street a lot, probably hanging around with bad dudes or being confrontational with police.